It could be argued that the honeybees’ part in the history of brewing is as ancient as brewing itself. Only the humble yeast can boast a longer relationship to the art – first the accident – of brewing, but this boast is slightly marred by yeast’s relationship with brewing. Without yeast, there is no brew. Not so for the honeybee. Honey is not an integral part of brewing, but sugar is, and many historians agree it is likely that honey was the sugar source for the earliest fermented beverages. Even today, it is often used in brewing.
Why Bees Are Important For Brewing
Beer has its own long ties to this natural sugar and its hardworking maker. The earliest known evidence of beer comes from 7000 BC China where Neolithic villagers created a beverage of honey, rice, fruit (hawthorn and/or grapes).
But, these small creatures’ wings of influence stretch far beyond the brew pot. Our very rise and continued existence are inextricably linked to this trundler of the air currents, this buccaneer turned pollen merchant and all her kin.
Honey has been an invaluable source of food since the very beginnings of mankind’s history and today one-third of the world’s population is dependent on bees’ ability to pollinate food crops. This small insect is so critical to our food chains that one in three mouthfuls in our diets is somehow linked to bees work.
What Is Colony Collapse Disorder?
Colony Collapse Disorder seems to be the result of a compendium of mostly human-caused changes that include global warming, the switch from using cover crops to synthetic fertilizers, farming crop monocultures, pests such as the varroa mite that spreads viruses, and the use of pesticides – particularly neonicotinoids.
Taken one at a time the bees could probably cope better than they are, but taken all together, where one problem compounds another, they are seriously over-matched. Marla Spivak gives a TedTalk on why bees are disappearing and liken these combined problems to a nightmarish scenario of being sick.
You can watch the TedTalk below:
Imagine being so sick (virus/varroa mite) you don’t feel like leaving the house, but you know you should go get some nutritious food, so you finally rally and head out the door only to find you have to go 50 miles (monoculture) to find this food. Then you suddenly realize that the food you’ve come so far to get is actually contaminated (neonicotinoids and other pesticides) and either kills you outright or makes you so disoriented you no longer know how to get home.
How Hops Can Help Save Bees
There is hope though. The world-over is realizing that “as goes the bees so goes mankind,” may be more accurate than most of us would have thought possible. Some countries have banned the use of neonicotinoids, which seems an apt response if there’s any chance of this pesticide being one of the culprits.
The science community is also aligning its might against the problems plaguing the bee. With the bee’s sweet foodstuff so long a part of brewing history, it is only right the newest piece of assistance would come from the brewer’s playbook – Humulus lupulus (aka: Hops).
Yes, hops, the magical herb that lends bitterness, flavor, and balances to nearly every type of beer seriously brewed today, may also be an important piece in the larger puzzle of stopping Colony Collapse Disorder.
It seems the varroa mites’ kryptonite could be hop beta acids (HBA). In fact, research has shown promising results in the use of the naturally occurring pesticide, the potassium salt of HBA, to kill and repel this vampiric pest of the hive.
A 2012 study, found 100% of mites placed on a bee, wiped down with a 1 percent HBA solution, died. The bee was not affected by the solution. The same study placed strips of cardboard treated with HBA in bee colonies. When these colonies were compared to colonies not treated with the strips, it was found that more mites fell off the bees in the hives guarded by the HBA cardboard.
In October of 2015, the EPA approved the use of this biochemical pesticide around hives. The EPA was able to release it for use without further safety testing due to its long history of use in brewing and as a meat preservative. With such a long history of human exposure, it has been acknowledged as a safe-to-use substance.
A few months later, in January 2016, the EPA announced that they will be “expediting the approval of pesticides that target Varroa mites.” This includes the use of potassium salts found within hop beta acids. For anyone looking to dive deeper, we would encourage you to read more about this update on Regulations.gov.
Update: It appears that the link to the EPA announcement from October is no longer working. For anyone interested, you can view a snapshot of that original announcement on the Wayback Machine.
What You Can Do:
1. As a brewer, choose to buy local if you plan to use honey as a brewing ingredient. This supports your local beekeeper’s who are having a hard time of it. To find local honey use the National Honey Board honey locator.
2. Plant local bee friendly plants such as red clover, bee balm, foxglove, asters, sunflowers and goldenrod. For more information on bee friendly plants, please visit either the honeybee conservancy or honey love.
3. Donate to research, education, and community outreach on behalf of the honeybee, if moved to do so, and petition to get pesticides that might be adversely affecting bee populations banned.
4. Stop using pesticides that may be linked to the bees’ problems. Find new respect for flowering weeds, don’t think of them as a blot on your landscape, but a much-needed nectar drive-thru for local bees. Those dandelions that spot your lawn aren’t bad, in fact, it isn’t just the bees that can use them. You can eat the leaves, make tea from the roots, and brew with the flowers I myself have used them in a mead.
5. Make a herb garden that will benefit the bees, your culinary explorations, and your brewing.